Audi's Tesla-competitor is nearly here. We get sideways in the Namibian desert
“I think it’s over a girl,” says our guide. From the confines of our Audi e-Tron, we’re watching two (presumably teenaged) giraffes beat the proverbial out of each other. It’s not an elegant sight. Giraffes are normally pretty docile, we’re told. Not used to fighting each other or, for that matter, anything else. Which must be why they look so awkward when they try. They’re simply not built for it, we conclude, as the pair stop whipping their heads/necks around (seriously, YouTube ‘giraffes fighting’), plainly decide ‘she’ isn’t worth fighting over, and amble away into the Namibian wilderness. Hopefully via the desert-equivalent of a reconciliatory pint.
I think of these giraffes again the next day, as the man from Audi turns the e-Tron’s ESC off and points me towards a rudimentary handling circuit carved into a gigantic Namibian salt-flat. I hesitate, because arsing around on a surface about as grippy as packed snow is not what this (or any other) family SUV was designed to do – not even close – and if I try, its air of unimpeachable ability and sophistication could turn out to be quite impeachable after all. We might end up like the giraffe, inelegantly flailing around as others look on in amusement. Happily, what actually transpires is quite the opposite.
Allow me to take a break from torturing that particular metaphor and give you the headlines, in case you haven’t watched my colleague Jack Rix’s rather excellent explanatory video. Audi’s first proper EV is a conspicuously inconspicuous – the company didn’t want to scare away its existing customers with something too futuristic. Far as size goes, it’s a five-seater somewhere between a Q5 and Q7, at 4,901mm long, 1,935mm wide and 1,616mm high. A more svelte ‘Sportback’ version is next.
A whopping 700kg battery (that’s heavier than an entire Ariel Atom) contributes to an overall weight well in excess of two tonnes, despite the extensive use of aluminium in the car’s construction. And yet, the e-Tron launches to 100km/h with the characteristic punch of an EV (yes children, it does have launch control), hitting the milestone in 5.7 seconds before running into the buffers at 200km/h. On the WLTP cycle, you’re looking at 400 km or so between recharges.
The reason we’ve come to Namibia of all places, via three flights on progressively smaller, deathier planes and a two-hour immigration queue, is because Audi is exceptionally proud of the e-Tron’s all-wheel-drive system, and it wanted us to try it out before the car’s official launch next month.
Even in deepest Scandinavia there isn’t that much snow around this time of year, so ze Germans were forced to look elsewhere for a suitable surface to demo this latest version of Quattro. And as it happens, a gravelly salt flat is a pretty good substitute for the white fluffy stuff. Which is why I’m sat here, on the edge of an ex-lake the size of a medium-sized English town, listening to a bearded development engineer called Toby explain the intricacies of the e-Tron’s drivetrain.
Not unlike the Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla’s ‘Dual Motor’ cars, the Audi e-Tron has one electric motor for each axle. Combined output is 402bhp and 665Nm. Very much unlike the other eight million or so Quattro-badged Audis sold since the mid-Seventies (almost half of the cars it sold last year were all-wheel drive), the e-Tron doesn’t need to have a mechanical link between the front- and rear axles. Front-motor does the fronts, rear-motor does the rears – easy. The supply and distribution of power to individual axles/wheels can therefore be controlled much more precisely and more quickly than in a normal car, giving faster-reacting, more adaptable AWD and thus better grip. In theory.
We’re in Dynamic – because of course we are – the fightiest of the e-Tron’s many modes. It drops the standard air suspension, ramps up the steering effort and takes a load of slack out of the throttle pedal. Oh, and when it senses you’d much rather be travelling sideways than in a straight line, sends a shedload of power rearwards. With the ESC dialled back into Sport mode, Dynamic allows a tiny baby of a drift before the front wheels and what’s left of the ESC start to interfere.
It reminds me a bit of the Tesla Model S. Driving one of those on sheet ice isn’t as fun as you’d think, because you can’t turn the ESC all the way off. I know, I’ve tried. You can use something called “Slip Start Mode” to get yourself going with a bit of drama, but beyond a certain speed all the systems come back to life, and return to their daily business of keeping you alive/ruining your fun. Good news: this is not true of the e-Tron, which lets you turn its systems quite spectacularly off for the biggest, dustiest drifts south of the Sahara.
On Audi’s little handling course the e-Tron feels small. Not Q3 small, but certainly closer to the Q5 than Q7 or 8. Nimbler, though, than either its kerbweight or dimensions would have you believe. And fast, because there’s power everywhere and no gearbox whose action might delay proceedings. The steering is very Audi – light and twirly, with next to no feedback – but quick.
The brakes are a bit odd – as indeed they are in every car that uses regenerative braking – but they feel strong enough, even on this marbled surface. In day-to-day driving you might not need them – there are a couple of regen modes, operated via paddles behind the wheel, just like the e-Golf. These range from no regen whatsoever to quite a lot, but we’d still like another, more ferocious mode on top of these.
All e-Trons get height-adjustable air suspension, and we can confirm it deals with washboard-y Namibian tracks quite well. How it will deal with your local high street, however, remains to be seen. Valuable consumer advice there.
Inside? Much like every other new, big Audi, with twin infotainment screens and the Virtual Cockpit instrument cluster. The driving position is good – better here than in the Q or A8 – and the seats comfortable. Storage and space is good because there’s no transmission tunnel. The weirdest things about it are the door mirrors, which are little screens in the door panels. I didn’t spend enough time in the car to get used to them – I kept looking into the eyes of the cameras, which are positioned where the mirrors normally are – instead of at the screens. You’d get used to them, no doubt, but normal mirrors are available if you’re more of a traditionalist.
It’s hard to get a proper feel for a car without driving it on tarmac, which is why we’re doing this and not one of our full many-point reviews, but the way the e-Tron handled the salt-pan is indicative of a well-sorted SUV that should handle fluidly, if not outright amusingly. It’s great fun out here – as indeed most anything else would be – it’s whether that translates into real-life that’s the issue. So, we’re going to stop short of comparing it directly with a Tesla or Jag I-Pace until we can get them together in the UK. In the meantime, we’re gonna see what other animals we can successfully sneak up on.
STORY Tom Harrison